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Why We Should Consider Letting High Schoolers Pick Their Classes

With decades of teaching under his belt, this former educator argues yes -- if we want education to matter.

Photo Credit: Orange Line Media |


Both my late mother’s and my father’s right foot tended to be heavy when in contact with car accelerators. Their brothers and sisters shared the tendency, suggesting some sort of genetic propensity — which I, unfortunately, seem to have inherited.

The last time it got me in trouble I was given a choice. I could either have the evidence of my bad behavior recorded on the back of my driver’s license, or I could spend four hours on a Saturday morning in a highway safety class.

Looking ahead, I chose the latter.

The class started at 8 a.m. and continued until noon, with one 15-minute break. To his credit, the instructor did his best to liven up his presentation, mixing humor, props, videos, and body language. Notwithstanding all that, it was four of the longest hours of my adult life.

Now, when I visit classes (mostly at the high school level) in an effort to keep in touch with reality as it manifests itself in American education, it’s a rare experience that doesn’t trigger two vivid memories—one of my sitting in that Saturday morning class trying to pay attention, the other of a scene in the film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,”   when the camera pans slowly across the faces of students as the teacher “covers the material” in a history class.

I’d like to be able to say that student boredom and mental disengagement are the exception rather than the rule in America’s classrooms, but decades of firsthand observation, student surveys, research on attention span, statistics on truancy and drop-outs, and the near-universal problem of classroom discipline tell me they’re not. A recent Gallup poll of a half-million students in 37 states says that the longer kids stay in school, the less engaged they become.

That’s the reverse of what ought to be happening.

It’s impossible to quantify the problem with precision, but if educational efficiency is indicated not by standardized test scores but by adult recall and use of what was once taught, I’d estimate the high school average when I graduated in the 1940s at no more than about 15%, decreasing slowly until about 1990, then more rapidly when the current standards and testing fad kicked in. Now, I’d put average institutional efficiency as something less than 10%.

Very few of us could pass the subject matter tests we once took, or would agree that being unable to do so significantly handicaps us. How can we ignore the implications of that fact?

I don’t blame teachers. What we have is a fundamental system problem, and it can’t be solved by following the advice of business leaders and politicians and merely doing longer, harder, and with greater precision, what we’ve always done.

In a November 12, 2012 “The Answer Sheet” blog, I suggested addressing the problem with project learning, but project learning with a twist—moving beyond textbook and lecture abstractions and putting school subjects to meaningful, real-world work. The school and its site model the larger world in every important respect. If teachers treated it as a hands-on laboratory and had kids use math, science, language arts, and social studies to describe, analyze, and improve the school, disengagement would either end completely or be radically reduced. The core subjects would be better taught, and learners would take with them a comprehensive sense-making template they’d use for the rest of their lives.

I have another, more unorthodox proposal for attacking the problem of disengagement. Most readers will consider it unthinkable, and some will write me off as a danger to the republic, but decades of working with kids tell me it would eventually trigger a performance explosion.